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Tillerson Vows Leaner and Possibly Meaner State Department


Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. secretary of state on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 11, 2017.

American diplomacy could soon become leaner and meaner.

President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state on Wednesday vowed to streamline the State Department to make it more efficient and achieve "cost savings."

"I noticed there are a few more boxes" that have been added to the department's organizational chart in the last few years, Rex Tillerson told senators at his confirmation hearing.

The communications director for committee chairman Bob Corker said there would not be a second day of hearings for Tillerson. Senator Jeff Sessions faced two days of questions about his nomination for attorney general.

Tillerson also signaled Wednesday a much tougher line with the Chinese, specifically in regard to its military activities in disputed waters.

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jan. 11, 2017.

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jan. 11, 2017.

Beijing's military constructing facilities on islands in the South China Sea "is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea," Tillerson told senators in one of his more forceful comments during the 9-hour confirmation hearing.

China needs to receive a clear signal that its island building must stop and further construction "is not going to be allowed," he said.

Tillerson gave the impression of being generally well-prepared, speaking without notes, and answered most of the questions thrown at him by senators with varying degrees of sympathy from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

"Tillerson strikes me as a country club Republican oil man right out of central casting," said Weston Konishi, a visiting lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. "Most of his responses during the hearing also reflected the kind of world view that you would expect from the CEO of a major oil company. He is no Wilsonian idealist, to be sure."

Protesters led by Greenpeace protest the Rex Tillerson confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 11, 2017 (K. Gypson / VOA)

Protesters led by Greenpeace protest the Rex Tillerson confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 11, 2017 (K. Gypson / VOA)

Protesters and hecklers in Room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building interrupted the proceedings several times.

Tillerson, as is the case with President-elect Donald Trump, would take the job without any previous government or military experience.

Oil, Cuba and Iran

Among issues of concern raised by senators was whether his career at one oil company will color his global outlook.

"Obviously there is a statutory recusal period which I will adhere to on any matters that might come before the State Department that deal directly and specifically with ExxonMobil," Tillerson said. "Beyond that though, in terms of broader issues dealing with the fact that it might involve the oil and natural gas industry itself, the scope of that is such that I would not expect to have to recuse myself.”

What became clear from Tillerson's responses Wednesday is that there is likely to be a quick shift in some international agreements made by the Obama administration. These include possibly shutting down the recent opening to Cuba and re-examining the multi-national Iran nuclear deal.

Tillerson, in replies to questions from senators, broke with Trump, who has said that allies currently under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, such as Japan and South Korea, perhaps should be permitted to develop their own such weapons.

WATCH: Tillerson Breaks with Trump on Nuclear Proliferation

TPP, climate change

Tillerson, who just retired as chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, also said he is not opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was supported by President Obama but opposed on the campaign trail by both Trump and his Democratic Party challenger, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The nominee expressed support for leaving intact the Paris accord on climate change — while noting skepticism about the science behind it.

That was not a strong enough position for environmentalists.

"We're looking for a secretary of state who is not going to lie about climate change and climate science," said Jason Schwartz, a Greenpeace media officer.

Watch: Tillerson on Russia, China, Risk of Climate Change

"The Paris Agreement doesn't enforce itself. It requires an ambitious policy at home and abroad," Schwartz told VOA.

Tillerson expressed unwavering American support for defending its NATO and Asia treaty allies — another diversion from the president-elect's rhetoric.

Russia

Tillerson also offered tough talk about Moscow's espionage activities directed toward the United States and sanctions against Russia already in place.

"I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way," Tillerson said, but also argued that Russia should not be considered an adversary all the time because there should be issues on which the two countries could cooperate.

WATCH: Tillerson Says Russia Must Be Held Accountable

Russia's increased assertiveness, Tillerson said, stems from the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.

"Russia, more than anything, wants to re-establish its role in the global world order," he said.

Tillerson’s views on Russia sparked some cause for concern.

"I would say that Tillerson's performance during the hearing has been stylistically solid but substantively a bit worrying given his repeated efforts to cast Putin in a more positive light than he deserves," visiting lecturer Konishi told VOA.

Tillerson, like others in the incoming Trump administration, "seems to hold a beyond-the-ordinary sense of optimism that Russia will cooperate with the United States on a range of issues, including eliminating ISIS," Konishi said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "What they fail to recognize is that ISIS may be less of an existential threat to the United States than a Russia that is undermining our election process and democratic system.”

Tillerson had extensive business dealings with Russia during his decades at ExxonMobil, the only company at which he has ever worked.

Human rights

One topic of questioning in which Tillerson became entangled with senators, especially Florida Republican Marco Rubio, was human rights.

"We need a secretary of state who will fight for these principles," said Rubio, expressing disappointment that Tillerson would not label Russian President Vladimir Putin "a war criminal."

Some rights groups warned that Tillerson's testimony called into question his effectiveness as secretary of state.

"Tillerson's claims that he cannot pass judgment on these countries' abuses until he has access to U.S. intelligence briefings ignores the U.S. government's own previous findings," said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch.

His comments Wednesday suggest he "is either ill-informed or apathetic to human rights issues worldwide," Margon told VOA.

In his closing comments, Corker, a Tennessee Republican, declared Tillerson “very much in the mainstream of foreign policy thinking.”

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